Manufacturer crafts control rooms around evolving needs
On a side road off Route 15 in northern York County, Mauell Corp. has been going about its business for decades, planning, designing and installing control rooms for utility companies.
The control rooms — often including entire walls filled with digital screens displaying data and video feeds that can resemble the captain’s bridge from a Star Trek movie — are designed for efficiency and flow, a bit of science in and of itself, said Gary Suchy Jr., program manager for Mauell.
“These are custom workstations,” Suchy said. “We are a one-stop shop for control rooms.”
Mauell is one of those central Pennsylvania enterprises that isn’t a household name but has developed a national reputation for its work. It started in New Jersey in 1971 as the U.S. operations of German company Helmut Mauell GmBH.
In 1982, the company moved to its current 32,000-square-foot facility at 31 Old Cabin Hollow Road, Franklin Township, which houses sales, administrative and manufacturing staff totaling 42 workers, Suchy said. About 18 of those jobs are light-industrial positions, including welders, machinists, painters and assemblers who put together the custom control rooms before they are shipped to clients and then re-assembled.
Based on the design work done in 2017, Suchy said, he expects the company will have about $18 million in revenue for 2018. That will make this year one of the better ones for revenue, he added.
The planning for control rooms starts long before the assembly. The company’s primary customer base is utility companies, which require sophisticated work spaces where every component and piece of furniture needs to be carefully laid out. Mauell designers will meet with a client and map out workflows to maximize efficiency and minimize wasted time and movements. That planning takes into account daily routines of control-room operators, as well as what the work flows would be in an emergency, Suchy said.
In fact, the designers initially mock up control rooms to mimic work flows and then give clients the ability to test the work space. As inefficiencies are detected, the design is adjusted. That level of planning and service is what differentiates Mauell from competitors, he said.
Laurie Gregg, manager of system operations for Lincoln Electric Service in Nebraska, said her company called on Mauell in 2012 when the electric company needed to modernize its control room, first built in 1980.
While the installation process took about six months, the planning and design stretched over a year before the installation, Gregg said. Mauell reviewed workflows with managers but also made sure to include interviews with the operators doing the actual work. Those workflows are critical to understand because the operators need to interact with other workers who cannot interrupt the operators’ flow, she said.
Lincoln put out a request for proposals that drew multiple bids. The utility chose Mauell because of the company’s detailed design and planning process. She had visited control rooms at similar companies where the facilities looked impressive but the workers were bumping into one another.
“We needed a clear workflow pattern,” she said. Lincoln is now planning a control room at a different location and likely will use Mauell, she said.
Not your parents' control room
In the last 10 years, Suchy and Gregg said, the demands placed on control room operators have increased tremendously. Control rooms take in an enormous amount of information from a variety of sources. Modern systems can detect an outage with great accuracy, which allows operators to dispatch remedies much faster, Suchy said. But they also are being bombarded by a stream of data coming from everything from smart meters to weather monitors.
The human element — highly trained control-room operators who must interpret what often can be conflicting information — means that proper design and workflow become critical, he said.
“These operators are taking in all this information and trying to create a plan to dispatch workers to fix outages,” he said. “They are figuring out what is happening in the field in real time and then safely dispatching people to the problem point.”
Suchy said the continual modernization of utility control rooms creates a steady source of revenue for Mauell. About every five years or so, a new technology or regulation requires a utility to upgrade its facilities. When he started in the industry in 1999, he said, for example, control rooms hadn’t yet evolved beyond analog display systems to digital.
Terrance J. Fitzpatrick, president and CEO of the Harrisburg-based Energy Association of Pennsylvania, said the modernization demands of utility companies are not going to end anytime soon. New regulations, as well as new technologies, mean that electric utilities cannot delay upgrades, whether that means adjusting to smart meters or customer-based green energy systems that pump energy back into the grid.
In recent years, concerns over the security of utility grids and systems, as well as problems with hacking and data breaches, have kept Mauell busy, as well, Suchy said. The company does not develop software but works with the software makers to ensure that systems are tightly controlled.
While the company specializes in control rooms for electric, gas and other utility companies, it also branches into transportation, including contracts with the New York City Transit Authority. The company tends to stay close to its niche but does like to test new markets, he said.
“We are always striving to do that,” Suchy said. Other potential markets include control rooms for traffic management, financial trading and intermodal rail operations.
About Mauell Corp.
What: Plans, designs and installs control rooms, primarily for utility companies nationwide
Where: 31 Old Cabin Hollow Road, Franklin Township, York County
When: Moved to its current facility in 1982
More information: www.mauell.us